These Foreign Things. by Ratty

Part 1

But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one: men know him not-and to know not is to care not for.

-- Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897

 

It was a cold morning in late November, and they'd come at last.

Luka Kovac wished he could say something judicious about that morning but he'd never been good with words and at the time all thought had been halted in the face of the fear, a terror that no words could describe. Later he'd read over the testimonies that he and everyone else would provide as 'an historical and medical record', but they were dry accounts and the words, laid out in black and white, hadn't come close to relaying the horror….

God knows how long they'd been there. How long he'd lain in that place His face against the ground, cold tarmac scraping against his cheek, eyes clenched tightly shut, hands gripping the back of his neck until his muscles ached. Complete and utter compliance, as though obeying twice as hard would somehow save them all. Endear him, and through that his family and friends, to his captors. Na´ve, but what else was there except the blood racing through his ears, and the sound of Serbian voices shouting orders and insults.

‘Ustasha!’ ringing in his ears.

The passage of time and his life seemed to slow down and stop along with rational thought. There was only sensation, intense indescribable sensation. His skin and face itched from the dust and dirt on the road and from dried blood and tears. His heart pounded against his chest wall, his ribs felt bruised from the pressure and the unyielding ground beneath him. Beyond that, above the strangely quiet crying of the children and the angry shouts of their terrified mothers, was a noise that could only be described as utter horror.

The broken sound of Marko's frightened sobs.

How could a father ever fail to recognise the cries of his own children even amongst the din of pain rent straight from hell?

And what father could fail to react?

Only one who had heard the shots as his neighbour, Boris Kostovic, the man whose cooling body lay beside him in the street, whose drying blood stained his cheek and the road beneath his face, had tried to get to his own children. Only the father who had heard the cries of Anna Kostovic's new born, that had kept his young family awake night upon night, silenced by machine gun fire, could lay still on the ground listening to his son’s screams.

He woke…

…Sitting bolt upright, heaving lungs gasping in air as his hands swiped at his face trying to wipe away the blood but finding instead only dried tears and sleep. The disorientation, thankfully, only lasted a few seconds. Then Luka Kovac was back in the present, heart pounding and his mind racing, but back in Chicago.

It was a few minutes and several deep shuddering breaths later before he could focus enough to think about moving. The dark of his room told him it was still early. A glance at the glowing figures on his bedside clock confirmed that.

4:47am.

His double shift had finished at 10:30 last night but a multiple MVA and Carters' absence had meant it was well past midnight before he'd left County. Despite a desperate need he knew he wouldn't get anymore sleep tonight.

Sighing, he swung his too long legs over the side of the bed and forced himself to stand up.

Walk.

Make his body respond to his commands. Sleep was becoming more and more of a struggle these days. Absent for night upon night, when it did come it was an unwelcome visitor accompanied by hellish visions of blood, and death, and worst of all his past. He was getting uncomfortably used to waking covered in sweat, heart pounding, muscles cramped and frozen in terror at enemies who were long since gone.

Limping slightly, from the stiffness and the ever-present pain in his knee, he mumbled under his breath as he dragged his aching body across the room to his jacket where his cigarettes were.

'Damn'. He wasn't due at work till 10:00am on Thursday. Over 24 hours away.

A month ago the time off would have been a blessing. He smiled slightly at the thought of Carol Hathaway, the kindness and friendship she'd shown him in the time they’d spent together. Lighting up he took a long drag and tried to hang onto that feeling, hold onto the warmth she'd brought him and the joy holding her twins had given him. He failed though, puffing out smoke harshly, feeling a familiar anger twist his gut, even that memory had been tainted with the dull loneliness, and the anger and pain that seemed to define his life.

He'd thought he'd managed to 'make a go of it' at County, and here in Chicago. Getting the job, selling his boat, beginning to really 'interact' with people, both at the hospital and the Croatian community at St Jerome’s. It had all been part of his 'new leaf', his effort to live again.

And less then ten months on he was forced to recognise that the attempt was nothing but a disastrous failure.

It had been wonderful at first, to hear his language, speak Croatian again. To hold a simple conversation without constantly straining to remember the right words, or having to worry whether his pronunciation or his accent was rendering him unintelligible to others. To be able to listen and understand every word and every oblique cultural reference, and better yet to be able to respond in kind. In the end though, as with so much these days it had been too much.

Too familiar.

It was like a taste of home, one that made him yearn for more, long for a place that didn't exist anymore, at least not for him. It made him miss his wife and family all the more.

Worse, though, there was no hiding from his own people.

At County he had been shown sympathy as people became aware of his 'loss' but then they had quickly moved past that with him. There were no questions, none of the well meaning but smothering attention he'd been given by those close enough to him at Saint-Jerome’s.

Oh he understood. Both sets of reactions.

'They died in the war' meant very little to his American Colleagues. Vukovar meant nothing. Others, though, knew better. Even those who hadn't been in Croatia at the time couldn't help but be filled with visions of the shelling and shooting. Vukovar wasn't some obscure foreign town but a place of untold horrors. He knew when they looked at him that they saw the stories of terror and deprivation, of mass graves and Serbian prison camps. And they saw the man he was, saw the dark, ugly, angry abyss behind his mask.

He couldn't blame them for trying to help, for needing to help. He appreciated their kindness but at the same time was smothered by it.

He'd not been back there since Christmas, choosing a double shift and Carol's eggnog over mass.

A small but deliberate step away from help. A step backward.

He had only since come to realise what he had lost after he had broken his ties with them. That day on the lakeside with Carol, he'd felt good then, better than good. Giddy with the feeling of freedom her young family inspired in him. That day he'd wanted to know her, wanted her to 'Know' him. But even as he spoke, as he said the name of that city, 'Vukovar' what he saw in her eyes made him realise he would probably never have that with her.

Or rather, what he failed to see. There'd been no flicker of recognition, none of the instant understanding he wanted so much, and he'd wondered in that moment whether she would or could every truly understand.

He'd made a choice in that moment, to lie. Or more accurately edit the truth. He'd needed to talk, to tell her of his past but in that moment the truth had seemed too horrific and bloody for her world. Screaming children and the blood and death that plagued his dreams didn't belong in that day or with Carol Hathaway. To have given her those things and sent her home knowing she would have to hold her girls thinking those thoughts would have been cruel.

Selfish.

How could she enjoy her children knowing she was living in a world where men with guns took women and children, the sick and the old, and raped them, shot them, and dumped them in the ground?

Later he'd told himself that he'd been wrong. That she could and would understand, that there was a way he could share himself and his past with her without tainting her dreams of lemonade stands and family trips to the baseball.

But he'd never got a chance to find out. Never been given that chance.

He had tried to rebuild but failed miserably.

She’d written to him since. A long and pleading letter that he guessed she wrote more to clear her conscience than to help him. He’d been glad to receive it though. He’d had his doubts about those two but it in the few weeks that had passsed since her leaving she’d seemed to mature 10 years. She talked about the twins. How Tess was fussing again and Kate was refusing to be weaned. She’d told him how the day she’d left, she and Doug had sat through the night and into the next day and back into the night talking, crossing bridges, ‘rebuilding’. She’d used those words and he was glad because it meant she’d listened to him, heard what he was saying, at least on some basic level. She’d asked him to write back, and she’d asked him whether she could send him some photos of the girls.

Her request had angered him at first, now though he thought he’d write back and say yes.

He’d not really thought about Carol’s letter since it had arrived in his mailbox along with the other one. Normally he didn’t get mail of any sort, somehow he even managed to avoid junk mail and circulars. That day though he’d come back to two, both in thickly stuffed hand written envelopes.

He’d recognised Carol’s handwriting immediately, a light feminine script that he’d already begun to miss seeing on his patients’ notes. Strange he didn’t realise he’d had that level of awareness of Carol until the letter arrived. Of course the Seattle postmark had been a give away. The flood of mixed emotions that her letter provoked had been nothing compared to the fear and upset that the one from Croatia had elicited. He’d read that with confusion and a growing sense of horror. He’d sat for hours staring at the badly scrawled signature wondering weather it was some kind of mistake, or sick joke.

And now he realised that maybe this past had been chasing him for all these years. It was staying in Chicago for so long that had given it time to catch up.

Luka looked over to the little table by his bed. The dim glow coming through his thin curtains lit the room enough so that he could make out the shape of his watch and the back of the small alarm clock on the bed side table, and beside that the letter that had come last week. It was the letter from Anto Kostovic that had brought the memories and dreams with it.

Dread twisted his gut for a moment as he flashed on cold tarmac and drying blood. The past was definitely catching up to him.

 

End Part 1

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